A Marine Returns

Afghanopium-Reese in mine field, scaled

Reese in an Afghan minefield

Return to Afghanistan

By Reese Erlich

Two teenage girls operate a hand pump here at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul. Thousands of people affected by the fighting in southern Afghanistan have fled to camps like this. Rick Reyes, a former American Marine who fought in Afghanistan and now opposes the war, says life here reminds him of rural Mexico where his family grew up. He recognizes the same unimproved roads and mud huts. But Afghanistan is “definitely a lot poorer,” he says. Listen here:

 

Reyes is visiting Afghanistan with a small group of American anti-war activists. He notes that the majority of people in both the US and Canada now oppose the war. While Canada has announced it will withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2011, the US continues to escalate its military involvement, which now include 100,000 combat troops.

Reyes walks to the tent of Tawaz Khan, age 55, the headman for this part of the camp. Khan, a farmer from southern Helmand province, says coalition forces bombed his home, killing five and wounding seven family members. His young daughter had her left arm amputated. “The bombing started at 5:30 a.m.,” he says. “People were sleeping; some people were getting up for prayer. And it lasted for hours.”

The US promises to compensate civilian victims of NATO bombing raids. The Khan family has spent a year going through the process to get payments for their injuries –but to no avail. “Nobody has given us compensation,” says Khan, “neither from the government of Afghanistan, nor the coalition countries. And they’ve all made promises.”

Reyes is clearly moved by the family’s story. “Tell him that the work I’m involved in is opposed to the conflicts and the policies that we’re implementing in the country.” Later, in his hotel room, I ask Reyes what was his personal reaction to meeting the refugees. “I wasn’t sure how they were going to react,” admits Reyes. “I was surprised that I was welcomed and accepted.” Reyes was deployed to Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, at the beginning of the 2001 US invasion. His unit had no translator to communicate with the local civilians, and he learned that US intelligence was frequently wrong.

“There’s no way to know if these guys are combatants or not,” he says. “So you kind of do make yourself a target and wait around until you get shot at. At that point, there’s still that question. Maybe they’re just pissed off because we’re here.”

Reyes says his views about the Afghan war developed further after he got back to Los Angeles and left the Marines. In 2009 he testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need to end the war in Afghanistan. Here’s an excerpt from his testimony:

“As a Marine I was willing to give my life for my country and still am. But invading and occupying Afghanistan, sending more troops to stop what is a political problem, is not the answer. I urge these Senators to rethink Afghanistan while there is still time. I can almost guarantee that sending more troops will mean more civilian and US troop casualties, not for war but occupation. Sending more troops will not make the US safer; it will only build opposition against us. I urge you to rethink Afghanistan. More troops and more occupation is not the answer.”

Back at the refugee camp, Reyes says time is running out for foreign troops in Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents are on the offensive. And the western-backed government of Hamid Karzai is losing popular support. Refugee leader Khan wants former Reyes to convey a message to the American people. “Among the current American soldiers there are people doing bad things,” Khan says. “The Afghans don’t like them. They are destroying Afghanistan.”

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